What We Know About Amtrak 501

Earlier today, we saw the latest in a series of crashes that have plagued Amtrak and other US passenger rail providers over the last few years. This is, first and foremost, a human tragedy; but it is also an urgent concern of public policy. While trains–and all public transit–are on a population level much safer than driving, there is no need to accept any casualties at all, ever. While others–primarily the NTSB–will provide a full analysis in the weeks and years ahead, this is my attempt to reckon with what we know about this incident as of the same evening. I had intended this to be a series of bullet points but WordPress doesn’t like the formatting, so I’ve bolded every topic heading. 

Let’s keep in mind that the victims of this tragedy should be in our minds; I haven’t seen a casualty count since the morning, but we know there are fatalities and serious injuries. That shouldn’t have happened, and in addition to wishing their families comfort, this post is inspired by a sense that we–myself as a transportation professional and those who read this blog–should do all we can to prevent such things from happening.

Amtrak 501 was operating over–was, in fact, and somewhat remarkably, the very first revenue train over– the Point Defiance Bypass, a state/federal-funded project that moves passenger trains from a mudslide-prone, curvy waterfront route around Tacoma to a more direct, faster route.


wsdot project map

Source: WSDOT

While the tracks for the bypass have been in service, they have not carried passenger trains along their whole length until now. Trains have been running to test the line for months, but this was the first one to carry passengers.

As befits its purpose, the Point Defiance Bypass is mostly straight, easy 79-mph running, but the area where the train derailed is much trickier. Toward the southern end of the bypass, not far from rejoining the freight main at Nisqually Junction, the tracks flow into an S-curve with a bridge over I-5 in the middle.


derailment 3d

Looking south, in the direction of train travel.

Going into the curve southbound, the speed limit drops from the standard track speed of 79 mph to 30 mph, as confirmed by an Amtrak employee timetable I’ve been sent. 

amtrak timetableAccording to one report, there should have been an indicator sign two miles before the speed restriction indicating the drop in speed; certainly, there was a sign indicating the 30 mph restriction immediately before the curve.

The train was probably going too fast. Amtrak’s train tracking system doesn’t report train speed or location completely continuously (at least not publicly) but in this case it appears to have pinged the train immediately before the crash, reporting a speed of 81.1 mph at a position just 1400 feet east of the crash site. The system isn’t 100% reliable, so don’t worry about the report that the train was going two mph above the speed limit (which wouldn’t have made a difference in any case). transitdocs detail The same Seattle Times report quoted a motorist who said he was driving in the 60 mph range and the train was going faster. And the positioning of the crashed train–the lead locomotive taking a nearly straight route out of the curve, as if it didn’t follow the tracks at all–indicates a speeding train whose inertia carried it (or rather, part of it) forward. Remember, the train should have been going 30 mph going into that curve. There is no way for a passenger train to shed 50 mph in the space of 1400 feet.

If the reporting system data and eyewitness reports are at all accurate, this is pretty clearly a case of a train exceeding the speed it should have been operating at. Overspeed (as it is technically known) is, however, more a descriptor than an explanation; beyond that I strongly discourage speculation. There are too many causes to count: operator error; signal failure; equipment problems (the lead locomotive was a brand-new Siemens Charger); track problems (remember, this is new, or at least recently refreshed, infrastructure); or any number of other possibilities.

Though I discourage speculation about root causes, it’s impossible not to note the scary parallels between this crash and two other recent overspeed crashes, Amtrak 188 at Frankford Junction, Philadelphia in 2015 and Metro-North at Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx in 2013.



Diagram of the Amtrak 188 crash at Frankford Junction. Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/here-everything-we-know-about-amtrak-188-train-wreck-in-philadelphia-2015-5



Metro-North crash at Spuyten Duyvil. Source: https://twitter.com/NTSB/status/407329136735027200/photo/1

Amtrak 188 entered a 50 mph curve at 106 mph; in a situation eerily similar to today’s the Metro-North train entered a 30 mph curve at 82 mph. We still don’t really know the root cause of the Frankford Junction crash, though most theories have centered around the engineer (who is suffering from amnesia from the accident) losing attention somehow, without his recollections it’s impossible to know for sure. At Spuyten Duyvil the engineer suffered from sleep apnea and was apparently asleep as the train went around the curve (the same issue has come up in several other, more minor commuter rail incidents recently, including at Hoboken and Atlantic Terminal). Whatever the cause, overspeed incidents are all too common on American railroads.

Discussions about these kinds of things always come back to Positive Train Control. Originally mandated by Congress after the 2008 Chatsworth crashnot an overspeed incident, for what it’s worth–PTC implementation was an unfunded mandate, has suffered extreme resistance from the railroad industry, and has been painfully slow. As at Frankford Junction and Spuyten Duyvil, PTC was not in operation on the Point Defiance Bypass today; as far as I can tell, it is intended for operational status later this year (as indeed it was at Frankford Junction…ouch). Yes, barring some kind of drastic equipment failure, PTC likely would have stopped this crash. But it’s worth noting that it’s not the only technology available to stop a speeding train headed into a slow zone; various forms of Automatic Train Stop have been able to do so for almost 100 years. So while the increasing series of crashes is absolutely making a cumulative case for cracking down on the rail industry’s PTC slowness, we should keep in mind that failures like this implicate not only the PTC mandate, but the entire safety culture of American railroading.

Let’s talk about safety culture. Jason Laughlin of the Philadelphia Inquirer just published a piece yesterday (literally not kidding) building off of the NTSB’s scathing assessment of Amtrak’s “safety culture,” stemming from yet another fatal crash, this one at Chester, PA in 2016. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate that the two maintenance-of-way workers killed in the crash and the train engineer involved all tested positive for drugs, and yet that was not found to be a necessary contributing factor to the crash. Similar assessments of commuter railroads have been, while perhaps not as bad, not encouraging either. American railroading has a lot of pathologies–a reactionary culture; toxic labor-management relations; an inability to accept innovation or new ideas–but few have the potential to affect riders as directly as the dysfunctional attitude that it sometimes seems everyone from the top down takes toward safety. It’s a problem that pervades both management and labor, and no one should escape the recriminations, when they come, unscathed. Alex Forrest has a good thread about the cultural contrasts between American and Japanese attitudes toward rail safety; but let’s just say the challenge of 21st century American railroading will be to change a culture where the idea that a train will go on the ground every so often is acceptable rather than unimaginable.

The train’s equipment–a new Siemens Charger locomotive and articulated, lightweight Talgo coaches–is fairly unusual by US standards, but there’s no indication it played any role in the crash. Here, you can see the Charger sitting on the freeway south of the bridge, the 12 Talgo coaches in various geometric arrangements across the crash site, and the trailing P42 (presumably included as insurance for the new locomotive) still sitting on the tracks. 

Don’t freak out. Train crashes get a lot of attention because they’re unusual, visually spectacular, good media content, and a grand American tradition going back to the 19th century. That doesn’t mean they’re actually common. You’re still a lot safer on the train than in a car. I’m obviously mad at American railroad safety culture–and you should be too–but that shouldn’t get in the way of data-oriented reality, even in moments where it’s tempting. Because ultimately, this is all about getting our casualties from mobility down to precisely zero–and we have a lot more work to do on the car side than the transit side.  

Featured Image source: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/photos-from-amtrak-train-derailment-near-olympia/

Coordinating Passenger Rail in Northwest Indiana

Northwest Indiana famously hosts one of the most complex rail networks on the planet. As a book I once read (I can’t remember which) argued, the “logical” place for Chicago to have been from a railroad perspective would have been about 30 miles east of its current location, perhaps near Whiting, IN. Instead, with the nation’s rail network divided at the location of an ancient portage, the “Eastern” railroads had to converge in the extreme northwesterly corner of Indiana and make a near-90-degree turn to run into Chicago. The result was a tangled mess of conflicting rights-of-way, industrial tracks, and infrastructure that has only been somewhat simplified by the mergers and consolidations of recent decades.

Two passenger railroads try to pick their way through this mess, with varying degrees of success over the years since the destruction of American passenger service in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Chicago, South Shore, and South Bend, “America’s last interurban,” now under public ownership as the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD) operates a relatively conventional commuter service into Chicago, blended with an intercity operation reaching South Bend. Amtrak operates two long-distance trains along Norfolk Southern’s ex-New York Central Chicago line between the East Coast and Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited to New York City and the Capitol Limited to Washington, D.C.; a number of daily roundtrips to points in Michigan that leave the Chicago Line at Porter, IN; and the Hoosier State/Cardinal to Indianapolis (and beyond, three days per week).

schematic 1

Northwest Indiana rail network. Legend applies to all maps in this post.  Apologies for any sloppiness–I’m still learning QGIS–and for the general crappy resolution of the maps (I can’t get WordPress to upload them at anything near full resolution). 

The Northwest Indiana rail network remains seriously congested (as does the entire extended Chicago area), but both the South Shore and Amtrak have begun infrastructure plans that would allow their operations through the area to become speedier and (especially) more reliable. Unfortunately, in typical American railroading fashion, these projects are being planned and executed in a terribly siloed and completely uncoordinated fashion, whereas a degree of sharing infrastructure and cooperative thinking could go a long ways toward speeding trips and cutting down on unnecessary spending. Since Ted asked me why they don’t work together (and I’d actually been thinking about it for a while), here’s my attempt at analysis.

Though it’s more or less been in stasis for 60 years, the South Shore is pursuing an ambitious slate of improvements. The West Lake Corridor would use an abandoned right-of-way to create a branch from Hammond to Dyer; the latter town is currently not directly served by passenger rail. Closing the gaps in double track between Gary and the South Shore’s hub in Michigan City would increase capacity and move the railroad further from its interurban roots. The Michigan City realignment project would move the tracks through that city out of the middle of 10th and 11th Streets–the last place in the country where full-size electric passenger railcars run in mixed traffic, true interurban style, with cars on a city street–and create a dedicated rail right-of-way. Shortening the currently convoluted route to the terminal at the South Bend airport might need some use of eminent domain but could shorten trips by up to 10 minutes. While local and state commitments have generally been forthcoming, federal funding for these projects remains somewhat uncertain.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s Michigan Line–which is owned by the national carrier from Porter to Kalamazoo, and Michigan DOT from Kalamazoo to Dearborn–has been the target of a gradual improvement process, with running speeds now up to 110 mph along much of its length. Amtrak has also partnered with Indiana and Norfolk Southern on the Indiana Gateway project, a $71 million first crack at decongesting the Chicago Line to benefit both corridor and long-distance trains. All of these improvements exist in some relation to the long-standing multi-partner attempts to “fix” the Chicago rail network, most notably CREATE; Amtrak has contributed a report from its own blue ribbon panel on the Chicago gateway…which concluded that the Indiana Gateway project  “will not increase speeds, or provide capacity for planned additional passenger trains” (p. 20), although it will increase reliability.

Notably, the South Shore and Amtrak efforts, while each ambitious in their own right, have seemingly proceeded completely independently, without any effort to coordinate service or investment. This is perhaps most remarkable given that Amtrak’s Northwest Indiana efforts mainly center around mitigating the impact of–or avoiding entirely–the congested NS mainline and especially the infamous Porter Junction, where the Michigan Line branches off. South Shore’s right of way, meanwhile, intersects with Amtrak routes at several points and avoids Porter entirely. While the South Shore’s capacity is currently constrained by single track, it is actively seeking to undo that constraint, yet lacks money; Amtrak often manages to pull in multi-state political support for a decent amount of funding, but none of the alternatives studied in the South-of-the-Lake Route Analysis involve bringing that funding potential to bear to consolidate trains from both railroads on a double-track South Shore. Indeed, depending on where the connections are made, a joint Amtrak-South Shore route from Michigan City into Chicago could be shorter than the route that trains from Michigan currently take. To the maps!

Assumptions I make in this analysis are as follows:

  1. Both railroads are interested in avoiding as much freight congestion as possible.
  2. The most nefarious and hard to avoid congestion is in Indiana, roughly from Hammond to east of Porter; from the Illinois line to Chicago Union Station, extra room exists on the NS ROW for dedicated passenger tracks, waiting only for funding. (indeed, Amtrak’s Chicago Gateway report says NS has promised access to a dedicated ROW–at cost, of course–from CUS to Buffington Harbor, contingent on Amtrak coming up with the money)
  3. Amtrak values improvements to reliability as well as overall speed.

Long-Distance Trains

Let’s work our way from east to west, or from the perspective of a westbound train. Perhaps the most ambitious way for Amtrak and the South Shore to coordinate would be for the East Coast long-distance trains to transition from the Chicago Line to the South Shore in South Bend, avoiding almost all of the congestion on the Chicago Line. The transition could happen either in South Bend proper (perhaps in conjunction with bringing South Shore service to South Bend Union Station rather than its current terminus at the airport)


Or perhaps better near the hamlet of Hudson Lake, a few miles west; the lines are completely parallel between South Bend and Hudson Lake, but diverge after that.

hudson lake 1

Now, maybe the single track eastern end of the South Shore can handle two more round trips per day–and trips with less-than-reliable timekeeping, at that–or maybe it would need some capacity enhancements. There might be some clearance issues; while the Lake Shore Limited uses single-level equipment that can operate under catenary, the Capitol Limited runs with Superliners that might be too close to the wires for comfort–and can’t use the high platforms that the South Shore has at many stations. But the point is that in a potential scenario of maximum cooperation, the two LD trains could be diverted to a dedicated passenger track many miles from Chicago; whether the work necessary to make this possible is desirable is not really the focus of this post.

Fixing Michigan City

Let’s face it: there’s very little more fun for railfans or transit geeks than standing on the sidewalk of a small Midwestern city and watching trains rumble down the middle of a residential street (been there, done that; I’m pretty sure even my non-railfan parents enjoyed).

But it’s also antiquated, a massive constraint on capacity, and downright dangerous, which is why the South Shore and the city are in the process of relocating the tracks to a dedicated reservation. That being said, while it’s something of a judgment call, I’m less than fond of the alternative that was ultimately decided upon in Michigan City; I’d rather have seen something like Options 4, 5 or 6 as presented in the Alternatives study, moving the tracks off city streets entirely and onto an abandoned right-of-way that’s currently a trail, with a new central station near Michigan City’s Amtrak station, closer to the lake (it’s not really clear how the study team reached its conclusion, given that their evaluation matrix really shows Option 4 should have been chosen–it costs the same, has greater TOD potential, and eliminates more grade crossings than the chosen Option 1–but I digress). Notably, none of even these alternatives–which all proposed building a station adjacent to the Amtrak one–even considered running South Shore trains on the Amtrak tracks through Michigan City, even though not doing so required more property takings. Sigh.

Anyhow, perhaps the most important link in creating a joint South Shore-Amtrak line is the connection that’s possible just west of Amtrak’s current Michigan City station.

mcity 4

Whether or not the long-distance trains are re-routed onto the South Shore, the Michigan corridor trains can use an upgraded connection through the grounds of the NIPSCO power plant (the tracks are owned by the South Shore) to access the theoretically double-tracked South Shore main toward Gary and Chicago. This is one of the straightest, fastest sections of the South Shore; running largely through a state park, the intermediate stations see little traffic. Where the Michigan trains might switch to the NS alignment is covered below; but sharing the South Shore segment for the 10-15 miles west of Michigan City would eliminate the jog south and then north again that they currently make, as well as avoiding Porter Junction entirely, which is probably worth tens of millions in and of itself.

Western Connections

There are three possible locations for a western connection between the NS/Amtrak alignment and the South Shore main. The easternmost is where the two lines crisscross at Burns Harbor; a connecting track already exists and could be upgraded.

burns harbor 3

The middle is just east of Miller station on the South Shore, marking the point where the Chicago Line and South Shore diverge somewhat geographically. The two lines are parallel and right next to each other and a connecting track would be easy to install, though not already extant.


The South Shore alignment through Gary is interurban-y; while grade-separated, it’s somewhat twisty and slow, so transitioning back to the Chicago Line at Miller saves time and distance. But as I understand it NS has not guaranteed there’s ROW to be purchased for dedicated passenger tracks this far east; while I’m sure an alignment could be found, given the absolutely massive amount of legacy rail infrastructure in the industrial wastelands between Miller and Buffington Harbor, it might be easier in the short term to keep Michigan trains on the South Shore further west (which would also allow a stop at Gary Metro Center).

The westernmost potential connection point also involves the most infrastructure. The South-of-the-Lake analysis envisions an exclusive Amtrak line branching off the Chicago Line at Buffington Harbor, running south and east along abandoned and underutilized ROW to loop around Gary to its south. Such a loop would pass under the South Shore near Gary-Chicago “International” Airport; connecting there, rather than looping further south (what a truly silly idea the loop is) would be relatively trivial, although there is an elevation difference to be dealt with.


The Buffington Harbor-Gary Airport connector would subject Amtrak trains to a relatively slow slog through Gary on South Shore trackage, as well as somewhat congesting the busiest part of the South Shore system, and it would require the most new infrastructure (several miles of track). But there is definitely room for dedicated passenger tracks west of Buffington Harbor, meaning that placing the connector here would for sure allow reliable all-passenger running from CUS through to Michigan City and beyond (once funding is found, of course).

Recommended Course of Action

With separate planning, funding, and construction processes proceeding apace, it may be hard to really coordinate Amtrak and South Shore infrastructure improvements to the extent I’m recommending here. And of course I haven’t answered the question of why the two agencies haven’t tried working together; I rather suspect NICTD guards its infrastructure and capacity jealously and doesn’t want to give Amtrak (which wants to ramp up Michigan service to ten round trips per day) a toehold on their main line. But I’m not familiar enough with the local politics to know, exactly.

That being said, the South Shore double-track project is not particularly expensive, will give a solid ROI, and seemingly has a strong local funding commitment. Adding in a connection to the Michigan Line through the NIPSCO plant in Michigan City and a link to the NS Chicago Line at Miller would allow Amtrak corridor trains to bypass Porter and many miles of the congested Chicago Line (although an overlay of Amtrak’s ITCS PTC system might add some costs). Hell, NS might even pay for some of the costs, just to get the Amtrak trains out of its hair. Amtrak should angle to join the double-tracking project; help pay for it; and consider its options for the western end. Probably, Miller makes the most sense for the western connection; but if the various parties can’t find room for passenger tracks between Buffington Harbor and Miller, the westernmost connection option might be more reasonable.

With the core piece in place and protocols for cooperation in place, Amtrak and NICTD can consider whether diverting the LD trains to the South Shore makes sense. The variables are probably too numerous to prognosticate here: whether Superliners can be squeezed under catenary; whether the single-track eastern end of the South Shore has room for more trains without more double track; platform heights and clearance; whether the new Michigan City alignment can accommodate Amtrak trains; and the like.  But it’s at least worth thinking about; while both LD trains are highly unreliable and encounter delays along the entire route, the section between South Bend and Chicago tends to be especially bad.


A few further notes:

  1. I’ve treated the Amtrak Michigan trains here as if they all use the Michigan Line, but there’s one that doesn’t: the Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette, which runs once per day in each direction, diverging from the Chicago Line onto CSX rather than Amtrak’s own trackage at Porter. The Pere Marquette route actually crosses the South Shore just east of the latter’s Carroll Street yard and headquarters in Michigan City, and an interchange track exists for freight. It then crosses the Michigan Line just north of New Buffalo, MI, and should money become available a connection should really be built there, in which case the Pere Marquette would become just another corridor train for the purposes of this analysis (other than the fact that it often runs with Superliners, which would mean platform issues at some South Shore stations…).
  2. Austin brought up the idea of using the planned NICTD Dyer branch to divert Amtrak’s Hoosier State/Cardinal to the South Shore from Dyer into Chicago. These two trains currently encounter a significant amount of their massive delay problems west of Dyer as they traverse dense, congested rail infrastructure like Dolton interlocking. It’s not a bad idea; while somewhat roundabout, running the Indianapolis trains north along the Dyer branch and then along the South Shore/Metra Electric mainline to Grand Crossing would improve reliability considerably, though it would require completion of the CREATE Grand Crossing connection first. Perhaps Austin or I will explore this more in the future.
  3. Running Amtrak’s Michigan trains along the South Shore west of Michigan City would make the Amtrak-owned tracks between Porter and Michigan City redundant; perhaps they’d be retained for emergency diversions, or perhaps the South Shore freight operator could find a use for the line.


A New Sleeper Train in the Rockies?

Featured image source

Prompted in part by experiences like this, I’ve thought a lot about whether Amtrak’s long-distance operations are at all viable. They’re unprofitable, slow, and infrequent, and seemingly constantly under threat–but also generally the most politically popular part of the Amtrak system, since rural elected officials love seeing trains in their districts.

In thinking about the long-distance trains, I often come back to this excellent Sic Transit Philadelphia post. The core of Michael’s theory is this:

I have a developing theory of sleeper trains, which is that they are essentially a point-to-point service. A sleeper passenger who is willing to pay a fare that is going to pay for most, or all, of her costs, wants a train that is leaving in the evening and arriving in the morning. Perhaps a short ride in daylight can cover more another market or two with the same departure, but the basic form is evening-morning. It requires two trainsets to operate the entire service.

The luxury of such a service is that timing can be somewhat loose; trains just need to arrive by the beginning of the business day. From a cost-savings perspective, a one-overnight trip could mean that passengers can eat before and after their time on the train, eliminating the need for an expensive dining car. Michael discusses several potential routes for such a service in his post, and it’s been an occasional topic of discussion on Twitter as well.

This topic came back to me earlier this week when I read Jim Wrinn’s pessimistic take on the future of the former Denver & Rio Grande Western main line through the Rocky Mountains. Apparently, this line, once dominated by coal traffic, is down to a couple of trains per day in each direction, plus Amtrak’s California Zephyr, the successor to D&RGW’s grand, long-lived (D&RGW kept operating it privately until 1983) flagship train. That’s not a lot of traffic to keep up a 570-mile line (including a 6.2 mile tunnel) in some of the most spectacular–and most brutal, for weather and maintenance purposes–scenery in the country.


System map of the D&RGW in 1965, featuring the Moffat Tunnel line. Source.

The coal traffic that once sustained the Moffat line is probably mostly dead for good. But, as Wrinn suggests in his piece, what if the former D&RGW could become one of the US’ rare passenger-primary routes? An unlikely proposition given the expense of maintaining it, surely, but the line does have a strong passenger heritage, and links two growing cities with extensive, recently built out transit networks that connect well to their intercity train terminals. And it’s just about the right length to trial the one-overnight model that Michael proposes above.

Today’s California Zephyr is essentially a day train, with a mildly useful but slow schedule westbound across the Rockies, and an equally slow but less useful one (3:30 AM departure from SLC!) eastbound.

CZ timetable

A 15-hour trip wouldn’t work to run a one-overnight trip with two trainsets, but it wasn’t always that slow. The 1952 Official Guide (indicate Denver & Rio Grande Western on the menu at left) has westbound train 17 at 13:40 from Denver to Salt Lake, leaving at 8:40 AM and arriving at 10:20. Eastbound #18 left SLC at a somewhat more civilized 5:40 AM and arrived in Denver at 7:00 PM sharp, for a time of 13:20. The Zephyr was a true day train in both directions, complemented by sleeper service at night.

And I think it might be time to bring that kind of service pattern back. With much less freight interference than in the line’s glory days and modern equipment (this line might work very nicely for tilting trains), it might be possible to get run times down into the 12-hour range. Even if that’s not possible and some train sets have to lay over, one day trip and one night trip in each direction–plus the Zephyr, whenever Amtrak feels like running it–between Denver and SLC might work nicely. The day trip would appeal to tourists wanting to see the spectacular scenery, while a barebones, no-meals sleeper operation could appeal to budget travelers who don’t want to make the stressful drive over the Rockies or don’t want to travel with a car. There’s also the possibility of restoring Ski Train service to resorts along the route, which current owner Union Pacific has been open to but Amtrak has been its usual obstreperous self about.

I don’t know if three passenger trains per day plus scattered freight service would be enough to justify the massive maintenance expense of keeping the Moffat Line open. I do know that the metro areas at both ends of the route are among the country’s biggest transit success stories, and have been highly creative in getting there. And I suspect that a day/night schedule on trains dedicated to SLC-Denver service could work. Hopefully someone will give it a try.

New Haven Line Penn Station Access, Faster and Cheaper

The topic of bringing trains from Metro-North’s into Penn Station on the West Side of Manhattan has been the subject of endless studies and public attention for the past 15 years or more.

Penn Station Access studies, 2002, including Hudson, Harlem, and New Haven Lines

Penn Station Access studies, 2002, including Hudson, Harlem, and New Haven Lines

Over the years, the expensive option of Hudson Line Access, which would involve an extensive rebuilding of the current, done-on-the-cheap Empire Connection, has been pushed off into the hard-to-envision future. Current plans revolve around the less capital-intensive option of bringing New Haven Line trains into Penn Station via the Hell Gate Bridge and the East River Tunnels. The idea garnered particular attention when it was included in the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Program,  then singled out–in distinct contrast to the rest of the MTA’s capital needs–by the Cuomo administration in the executive draft of the 2016-2016 state budget, funding $250 million of the projected $1 billion cost.

And therein lies the rub. There is, reasonably speaking, no real reason New Haven Line Penn Station Access (hereforth referred to as just PSA) should cost anything close to $1 billion. Though details are sketchy, the project as currently conceived appears to involve essentially the construction of four stations in the Bronx, a short extension of third rail in Queens to close a gap where Metro-North’s M8 EMUs can’t operate…and that’s it.

2014 proposed PSA alignment, with stations

2014 proposed PSA alignment, with stations

Documentation in the initial 2015-2019 MTA Capital Program suggests that the budgeted cost for PSA was $743 million, still incomprehensibly high, but somehow also $250 million below the number included in publicity this year:

PSA capital investment breakdown

The Capital Program budgets $188 million for the four stations in the Bronx–close to in line with the $41.3 million construction cost for West Haven, the most recent New Haven Line infill station. But that’s only the second-largest section of expenditures. The program also forecasts, very confusingly, $264 million for “track and structures.” That’s confusing because the whole point of Penn Station Access is that literally no track work is required, as Amtrak trains demonstrate every day. Alon has made the case for grade-separating Shell Interlocking, where the Hell Gate Line splits off from the Metro-North tracks to Grand Central, and that should definitely be done, but there’s no indication that that’s where the $264 million is going here. Perhaps some of it is going to the planned reconstruction of Herald interlocking in Sunnyside Yard, but that’s far more necessary for East Side Access than PSA. Perhaps some of ESA’s spiraling costs are being shifted onto PSA?

The other potential scenario is that Amtrak is demanding MTA restore some additional tracks onto the Hell Gate Line. The line has a four-track right-of-way that currently carries only two passenger tracks, with stretches of a non-electrified third track for (very limited) freight service. Amtrak hasn’t exactly been an easy partner with regard to East Side Access, so there’s no reason to assume they’d make the MTA’s life easy when it comes to PSA either. In any case, unless massive levels of service are planned for PSA, there’s no reason to add more tracks to the Hell Gate Line–the existing two tracks are plenty to handle Amtrak traffic plus a few additional Metro-North trains. But the point is the public doesn’t know where this significant expenditure is going. Maybe it’s actually being spent well. Maybe there are real needs I and other transit bloggers am not aware of. Or maybe not. In the meantime, it certainly looks bad.

Speaking of service: one of the other incomprehensible things about PSA has been the vocal insistence from MTA and the Cuomo administration that service cannot begin until some many LIRR trains are diverted to Grand Central by the opening of East Side Access. Presumably, this is their way of heading off conflicts with Long Island legislators who have previously gone to war to preserve parochial geographic privileges within the limited platform slots available at Penn Station, but it’s not, well, strictly necessary.

It has become very common and fashionable for transit advocates and bloggers to call for commuter trains to run through Penn Station rather than terminating there as a solution to the station’s growing capacity problems. With the very limited exception of the joint MNR/NJT Train to the Game Service, this has not yet happened, nor do the operating agencies show any apparent interest in making it happen, aside from vague references to through-running cooperation in dense documents.

Gratuitous YouTube break, demonstrating that New Jersey Transit trains can, in fact, run through to the New Haven Line

There are genuine technical reasons that through-running is hard. While NJT’s dual-mode and electric locomotives can operate throughout the corridor, the New Haven Line’s M8 EMUs cannot operate on the 12 kV/25 Hz electrification system installed on the Northeast Corridor between Gate interlocking (on the Queens side of the Hell Gate bridge) and Washington, DC.  There are a lot more of the EMUs, and they’re much preferable to loco-hauled trains, since they accelerate faster.

That being said, the gap between the end of 12.5 kV/60 Hz electrification at GATE and the beginning of LIRR’s 750 V DC, third rail electrification–which M8s can operate over–at Harold Interlocking is less than two miles. The third rail then extends through Penn Station to the west portal of the Hudson River tunnels. From there, it’s less than a five-mile gap of NEC-style electrification to Kearny Interlocking. There, NJT’s Morris & Essex Lines split off. Since 1984, they’ve been electrified at 25 kV/60Hz–a system under which the M8s can also run.

In other words, a perfect through-running partner for PSA service already exists on the Jersey side of the river–a line on which both NJT and Metro-North equipment can operate freely. The only technical barrier is the very manageable gaps in third-rail coverage.

Gaps in M8-friendly electrification highlighted in red.

Gaps in M8-friendly electrification highlighted in red.

From some Google Maps scouting, it appears that a total of about 16 track-miles of new third rail would be required, give or take some since I don’t know exactly where various electrification standards begin and end. Estimates as to the cost of new third rail vary, but $3 million per track-mile seems reasonable, perhaps even conservative. At $3 million per mile and 16 track-miles, you’d end up with a cost of right around $50 million for the needed third-rail extensions–very, very reasonable for the capacity improvement it represents.

So for just $50 million, we can run any New Haven Line train we want through to Gladstone, Dover, or Montclair State University. There are additional costs, of course. While all three M&E Lines terminal stations (in electrified territory) have high-level platforms, relatively few of the other stops do, and M8s have no traps for low-level platforms. I count a total of 58 platforms that would need to be high-leveled on all three branches. At a cost of $5 million per platform–again, conservative–that’s a further investment of $290 million. Most likely, you could knock off $90 million of that by not bothering with the ten stations of the very rural Gladstone Branch, and you could establish skeleton express service to Newark Broad Street, Summit and Dover on the Morristown Line and Bay Street and Montclair State on the Montclair-Boonton Line without any modifications at all. And, of course, existing NJT equipment can handle any and all platforms.

So where does that leave us? Costs for a barebones proof-of-concept run-through system could look something like this:

  • $50 million for closing gaps in electrification
  • $200 million for all four Bronx stations, politically the most important part of the project
  • $200 million for high-level platforms on the Morristown and Montclair-Boonton Lines
  • Presumably up to $100 million in various signal, yard modification, and other miscellaneous costs

For those counting at home, that’s about $550 million. For that money, you’d get:

  • direct access from the Eastern Bronx to the West Side of Manhattan and job markets in New Jersey, including Newark
  • a one-seat ride from eastern Westchester and Connecticut to Newark, and vice versa
  • more efficient use of existing train slots at Penn Station–“free” capacity improvement that doesn’t detract from any other line’s service
  • proof that running through Penn Station is both technically and politically feasible.

This vision of PSA and through-running at Penn Station might not be the highest priority we can dream about, but it is likely the most easily achievable. Given ESA’s ever-accumulating delays, PSA might not happen until 2025 if it has to wait for the other project. What I’m offering here may be barebones, but it offers the opportunity to make an innovative, somewhat important project happen far faster than otherwise planned.

Of course, this is the US, and more specifically the Tri-State region, so the real barriers aren’t technical but political and bureaucratic. With Albany and Trenton both mired in scandal, and a New York gubernatorial administration that for some reason seems determined to sandbag PSA, this kind of a scheme is unlikely to come to pass. Getting the various railroads involved here to work with each other is notoriously difficult, and given that Amtrak owns much of the infrastructure involved, heads would probably need to be knocked at the federal level (paging Senator Schumer…) The attitude from government so far has largely been to out-spend fundamental organizational problems (something that can be send of many, many aspects of transit in the NYC area), but let’s try for something better. In an era of fiscal constraint, low-investment, high-impact sure sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Thoughts from #Sandyridesthelakeshore

Anyone who follows me on Twitter surely saw that 10 days ago (Thursday night the 21st into Friday the 22nd) G and I rode the Lake Shore Limited (hereafter abbreviated LSL) from Albany to Chicago. When I was an undergrad I took the LSL between Chicago and Penn Station in coach several times; with a massive bag allowance (assuming a few hands willing to help at either end), it’s a great way to move a ton of stuff between home and college. This time, heading out to Chicago for my little brother’s high school graduation, we were lucky enough to be able to book a Viewliner roomette for around $360 for both of us, which is a) well cheaper than flying two people from Albany to Chicago and b) a great price for an overnight sleeper. The schedule, leaving Albany at 7 PM and getting into Union Station (theoretically) at 9:45, works nicely as well. Being me (and having engaged in several educational Twitter discussions about saving Amtrak’s long-distance service in recent weeks), I decided to take some notes on the experience and pass them on in blog form. I’m only now getting the chance to write this up, so forgive that please. Without further ado, Sandy’s notes and lessons from the Lake Shore Limited:

Unbundle the Freaking Food Service Already

It’s well-known (particularly, it seems, to Congressional Republicans) that Amtrak loses money hand-over-fist on food service on its trains. [Quick aside for those who might never have been on one: Amtrak’s long-distance trains (roughly over 700 miles, according to the Congressional definition) usually have both a full-service sitdown dining car and a more informal cafe/lounge car. Meals in the dining car come bundled with the sleeper fare, but coach passengers have to pay per dish if they want the food.] The railroad has cycled through phases of trying to cut costs and trying to make the meals luxurious enough to attract people to the dining car, with the result that the food is both pretty mediocre and very, very expensive. All long-distance trains now serve the same menu, so if you (like the nice older couple from Northern California who sat across from us at dinner) are taking a multi-day cross-country itinerary, the dishes are going to get really old, really fast.

As sleeper passengers, we got two meals in the dining car (except not really, see below). Dinner–served in a vintage-1950s dining car with low lighting and a dingy, Spartan, almost Soviet (I see you, Rep. Mica) feel–was the very definition of “meh.” It featured a green salad with a small amount of iceberg lettuce, and the vegetarian entree was an incredibly insubstantial “trio of stuffed pasta shells” that sells to non-sleeper passengers for a whopping $15.75. To be fair, the meat options did look better, and the best part of dinner was the upside-down strawberry cheesecake I had for dessert. Though the menu explicitly promises that several of the lunch options are also available for dinner, we were told that was no way, no how a possibility, and the waiter, a generally nice guy, refused to account for the kitchen’s refusal to serve the published menu. Meals are served on throwaway plastic plates and cups (though the silverware is real), which undermines Amtrak’s professed image as the “green” way to travel by generating an enormous volume of waste, as well as the nostalgia for the glamorous age of railroad china and dining car meals that Amtrak relies upon to sell its bundled food service. And remember, despite all the cost-cutting and enormously high prices that sleeper passengers have no choice but to (literally) eat, Amtrak is still losing money on food service!

And we didn’t even get breakfast on the train, because the crew shuts down the dining car at 9 Eastern time, a full 1:45 out of the scheduled time into Chicago, and typically even further. Not that that was communicated clearly to us; our attendant told us that it would “be best” if we got there at 8:00, but didn’t specify further. The train switches to Central Time at Waterloo, Indiana:

So we showed up to the diner at 8:00 AM Central Time west of Waterloo, just as it was being shut down–because apparently, the diner functions on Eastern Time for the entire ride. Bad communication and customer-unfriendly practices (do they REALLY need almost two hours to clean out the dining car?) for the win! (loss) Worse, the microwave-centric cafe car shuts down at the same time. The dining car is willing to serve a continental breakfast after 9, but these are unforced errors that just make the rider experience more hostile for no good reason.

So what’s the solution? As with any complex problem, solving the death spiral of food service on long-distance trains is clearly going to be a multifaceted project. The first step is almost certainly to unbundle food service from sleeper fares, as Amtrak is planning to trial on the Silver Star starting this summer. The trial will involve eliminating the train’s full-size diner and restricting food service to the cafe car. Many riders–particularly romantics and the older “land cruise” set who Amtrak seems to target–will surely mourn for the lost elegance of the dining car, but at this point there’s clearly little elegance left. Unbundling food service is expected to reduce sleeper fares by 25-28%–a not at all insignificant savings that should attract plenty of demand, certainly enough to make up for the loss of people who really want bundled sit-down meals (though demand isn’t really Amtrak’s problem when it comes to sleepers). Unbundling is just the first step though; ultimately Amtrak is going to have to open up the provisioning of food to the digital age.The cafe car on our Lakeshore was prominently posted with signs prohibiting non-Amtrak-provisioned food, which is just an obnoxious practice that should stop. Amtrak is also experimenting with at-seat food service, a common amenity in Europe. I also really like an idea that Alon Levy has brought up on Twitter:

Building an app like that would allow Amtrak to replicate the functionality of the 19th-century Harvey Houses, getting riders fresh, variable meals without the bother and massive expense of actually preparing them on the train. Of course, it would require a level of digital literacy far beyond that currently sported on Amtrak trains, where diner attendants still require sleeper riders to fill out a complex paper form rather than using an iPhone to scan ticket barcodes like the conductors. Amtrak’s current food service paradigm may very well be in an irreversible death spiral. But there’s plenty of hope for the future, with some creative thinking.


Amtrak frequently, and generally justifiably, complains that the freight railroads and their dispatching are responsible for the chronic lateness of the long-distance trains. If our experience on the LSL was at all indicative, though, there is plenty of room for improvement in Amtrak’s own timekeeping practices. Station stops on the LSL can best be described as “leisurely,” and the crew often seem to have weird concerns–while trying to watch another train pull in on the neighboring track in Albany, I was told to stay well away from that entire side of the (wide) platform by an attendant who told me “You’re freaking the engineer out! He doesn’t know whether you might be suicidal!” For the record, I wasn’t even on the track-adjacent warning strip, and if the nerves of Amtrak engineers are that jumpy, let’s please make sure none of them get hired as New York City subway drivers any time soon!

Anyhow, about those leisurely stops, I timed a few. With the train leaving Albany already 27 minutes late, I figured there would be some attempt to make up time along the way. Not exactly:

Utica: 10-12 minutes

Syracuse: ~15 minutes (and Syracuse has high-level platforms! what could possibly take that long?)

Rochester: 17 minutes

Toledo (where I woke up the next morning): scheduled 30ish minute break, not at all shortened despite running an hour behind at that point.

It’s entirely possible that long stops at these stations were necessary to maintain the LSL’s slot in the parade of freight trains with which it shares tracks. It is, however, more likely that the long stops are because of the LSL crew’s bizarre (and against Amtrak standards) sometimes practice of checking every ticket on the platform, rather than on the train (scroll down to the comments for discussion). What’s clear is that there is plenty of room for improvement in crew attitudes about stop timeliness.

Cost Savings? Halve the sleeping car attendants.

Not literally, of course, but currently Amtrak assigns one attendant for every sleeper. In the roomettes at least, the beds really aren’t that hard to figure out, and we were able to get them down with no help and no trouble. Surely, some riders will need physical or organizational assistance, but it hardly seems necessary to have one attendant per sleeper. Cutting down to one attendant for every two sleepers or 2 for every 3 would not only cut costs but allow the sale of one more room for revenue (alternatively, it could be converted into a full-scale bathroom, which the Viewliners lack). There would be gaps to fill, particularly when it comes to things like signing up for dinner seatings, but the impact of the staff cuts could totally be mitigated by the fact that

Digital technology has the potential to transform the long-distance train experience

I’m not just talking about Amtrak’s ridiculously slow WiFi, which the LD trains don’t have but really should. My attitude about Amtrak’s WiFi problems is that of Bruce Springsteen’s character in Rosalita”–“Someday we’ll look back and it will all seem funny.”

Music Break!

As I mentioned above, Amtrak conductors have recently started carrying iPhones that they use to check tickets. It would be truly transformational for the sleeper experience at least if Amtrak could get a touch screen interface into each room, which could take food orders, make seating reservations (if, indeed, the sit-down diner persists), call an attendant when necessary, and play videos and TV shows like those available on airplanes. WiFi should be the first priority, obviously, but getting a real, easy-to-use digital interface into sleeper rooms (and really, onto seatbacks in coach too) should be a major priority for the long-distance fleet, and might allow significant crew cost-cutting.

Managing Demand and Different Markets

Despite all of the problems I’ve listed here, our experience on the LSL was generally very positive. The roomette experience is cramped but manageable for two people, even when one of them is a jumbo like me. We were 57 minutes late into Chicago Union Station, which for a train that had 30% on-time performance in the month of April is not that bad. The food wasn’t worth either the extra expense or the 3-car hike to the dining car, but we brought our own, so that wasn’t too much of an issue. The staff were generally friendly and kind, which isn’t always the case.

And–importantly–our train was nearly 100% sold out. When I checked the day before we left there were zero coach seats available and only one bedroom. It’s important to understand that for all of its warts Amtrak’s problem is generally NOT a lack of demand for its services. And that applies to the long-distance trains just as much as the corridor services. Not to be cliched, but the challenge is transforming a pattern of service and operation that dates back to the 19th century to a digital age that offers both danger and promise.

This trip was my first opportunity to sample Amtrak’s sleeper offerings since my 16th birthday present, a trip on the Coast Starlight from Salem, OR to Los Angeles, and it was clear that the sleeper attendants and staff weren’t used to dealing with twentysomething travelers who could fend for themselves. And that’s a problem. The land-cruise market of older Americans who are afraid of or can’t fly, and who remember the golden age of passenger rail, isn’t all that big, and is arguably (because of the last condition) shrinking, but Amtrak’s sleeper services remain entirely focused on them, from high staffing levels to mandatory meals.

That doesn’t have to be the case. Sleepers will always be expensive, but Amtrak should be selling them as a budget option competitive with flying from midpoint cities. Take the case of the LSL. Flying between New York City and Chicago is fairly cheap and generally will remain that way. But there are plenty of smaller cities in between with medium-sized airports, and in the current hub-and-spoke configuration of the airline network, it can be very expensive to fly into and out of those places (believe me, we flew back to Albany). Taking coach from Albany or Rochester to Chicago, or from Toledo or Erie to New York City, might suck too much to be worth consideration–but a sleeper compartment might very well provide a happy medium between the expense of flying and the pain of an Amfleet or Greyhound coach seat.

Of course, as currently configured sleepers are a luxury experience that comes only at considerable expense–we got very lucky to book at the price we did. But that’s not necessarily inherent in the sleeper experience. Sleepers will always be more expensive than coach, simple because you can fit a lot fewer people in them. But by reducing staffing levels to a budget-friendly level, streamlining the experience with digital technology, and marketing the train as a budget-friendly, yet comfortable, experience, I think Amtrak could capture a large slice of the college student and young adult market. Remember, indications are that Amtrak might be able to slash sleeper prices by as much as 25% just by allowing people to bring their own food on board. And, assuming your stop has checked-baggage service, you can bring a hell of a lot more stuff on a train than a plane.

Obviously as a fairly tech-savvy, and train-inclined, twentysomething I have a self-centered bias in what I think will work for Amtrak. But the way they’re doing things right now isn’t working for much of anyone, including the political overlords who hold Amtrak’s fate in their hands. Why not try something fresh and new?

Notes on Boston-Springfield Service

Readers of this blog know I have a particular interest in intercity rail in New England stemming from growing up in New Haven. So when Eitan Kensky sent me a February presentation I hadn’t previously seen from the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (NNEIRI, not to be confused with the Northern New England Regional Rail Association, or NNEPRA, which runs the Downeaster), I was seriously intrigued. There have been numerous efforts over the years to revive the Inland Regional service that Amtrak and predecessors once ran between Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Hartford, and New Haven, and this document presents the general outline of the group’s current vision for the return of such service. Much of the research seems to have been done by contractors HDR, and the predominant vision is clearly that of MassDOT, with secondary input from Vermont and other stakeholders.

NNEIRI study area map

NNEIRI study area map

Massachusetts has, of late, been focused on two major goals for non-Northeast Corridor intercity rail: a link to Montreal and restoration of Inland Regional service. The current study (logically) links these two together. Tough previous service to Montreal has run along the Central Vermont line, turning off the Boston & Albany at Palmer to serve Amherst before heading north through Vermont, the current vision has Boston-Montreal service using the recently rehabbed Connecticut River Line from Springfield to Greenfield before continuing north. It’s a little bit longer, but serves Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield instead of just Amherst, and takes advantage of the state-owned Conn River trackage.

The predominant challenge to intercity rail in New England is that the trackage is in most places exceptionally curvy. The build alternatives envisioned for the NNEIRI service thus focused on regular-speed trains, with no ambitious plans for even moderate-speed (110 mph) options. It’s important to remember that “maximum speed” here means Maximum Authorized Speed, or MAS, rather than average speed. On curvy legacy tracks the trains are unlikely to obtain the maximum speeds for very long stretches, given FRA restrictions on tilt for conventional equipment (although the 90 mph MAS alternative does make brief mention of the possibility of acquiring tilt equipment).

Table of service alternatives

Table of service alternatives

A Boston-to-Springfield time of right around 2 hours would be extremely competitive with driving, which is about an hour and a half without traffic (yeah, right) and realistically usually at least a half-hour longer. It’s also about the same time as Peter Pan’s bus offerings, but a train would presumably offer a much higher level of comfort and reliability.

Costs would fall in the billion to billion and a half range for the bottom two alternatives, which seems on the high end for relatively simple double-tracking work within an existing right-of-way; I assume most of the capital expenses would be on the Vermont sections, since the B&A right of way is built to accommodate at least two tracks.

nneiri costs

Overall, the conclusion seems to have been that bumping MAS from 79 to 90 mph would result in considerable extra expense with little time saved or gain in ridership. The study team’s Draft Build Alternative is a modified Alt 2, with 79 mph MAS and slightly fewer trains:

draft build alternative

Eight trains per day would run through from New Haven to Boston, a kind of mini-Inland Regional service. These trains would function as extensions of the current New Haven-Springfield shuttle service. There would be one round-trip per day from Boston to Montreal, and another from New Haven to Montreal, while the Vermonter would continue as it currently operates, with an extension to Montreal. Springfield would get 9 round trips per day to Boston, and presumably the New Haven-Montreal train would have a timed connection with a westbound Boston-New Haven train at Springfield, giving Boston in effect two daily round trips to Montreal.

All trains are envisioned to make all local stops, which is interesting to me; I would have run the Inland Regional/shuttles as expresses in Connecticut, stopping only at Hartford. As it is, the additional 9 corridor trips will provided important added frequency to the NHHS/Hartford Line service that should be beginning in 2016. A 2011 NHHS document envisions full cross-ticketing between NHHS and shuttle/Regional trains, and the boost from NHHS’ 25-32 trains per day at launch to 34-41 including the corridor services is nothing to sniff at. However, that many trains would clearly require Connecticut to finish double-tracking the Hartford Line between Hartford and Springfield. That task isn’t itself all that complex but has been deferred to Phase II of the NHHS project (though it is included in Governor Malloy’s 5-year transportation ramp-up plan) because of the  considerable expense of rehabbing the Union Station viaduct in Hartford–which is, somewhat amazingly, believed to no longer be able to hold two trains at once–and the bridge over the Connecticut River.

Interestingly, study staff clearly believe that Springfield-Boston service alone would be a poor use of resources, labeling it “Low Ridership” and “Ineffective and Costly.” As Alex Marshall pointed out on Twitter, much of the envisioned ridership to New Haven is surely people from Worcester or the Metro West region who want a two-seat ride into New York City without doubling back into Boston to catch an NEC train.

Likewise, the study labeled plain Boston-Montreal service “Low Ridership,” while noting the potential for higher ridership in the New Haven-Montreal corridor. Despite decades of pleading for Montreal service, planners still seem to believe that Boston doesn’t quite deserve it. That’s not particularly surprising to me given how slow such service would be and how sparse population is along the corridors between the two cities. So for now, there will likely be just the one round trip per day, plus the possibility of a two-seat ride via transfer in Springfield, and that situation seems likely to stay the same for quite a while.

Other notes

Finish the Cross

As currently planned, the NNEIRI system looks like a sideways T, with the long axis pointing to Boston. I’m on record as a (self-interested) proponent of Albany-Boston service, and I think some of the improvements proposed here strengthen the case for finishing off a cross-shaped network with trains from Boston to Pittsfield and Albany. Double-tracking the Boston Line from Worcester to Springfield would leave less than 100 miles of single track from Springfield to Albany (it’s 102 track-miles, but there are existing sidings and stretches of multiple track). If trains can do Boston-Springfield in 2 hours, a time of 4 hours to Albany should be eminently achievable even without much in the way of speed improvements. With significant speed improvements (most of the line west of Springfield is limited to 40-50 mph, even though the trackage west of Pittsfield isn’t all that curvy or steep) a time in the 3:30 range–which my previous post identified as the time necessary to be competitive–should be achievable. That would open up the possibility of Boston-Toronto service via the Erie Canal corridor cities–a potential market for an overnight train?

Boston Line Capacity

One of the major ongoing dramas in New England intercity rail has been CSX’ reluctance to share the ex-B&A right-of-way with passenger service. Given current constraints, it is somewhat understandable; it’s a steep, curvy line that has suffered from decades of deferred maintenance (yes, part of that is CSX’ fault, but the neglect predates CSX ownership). CSX runs 25-30 trains per day on the line, which approaches the capacity of a mixed-use single-track line, even one equipped with advanced (by freight rail standards) CTC signaling:

From NCHRP Report 773

From NCHRP Report 773, “Capacity Modeling Guidebook for Shared-Use Passenger and Freight Rail Operations”

Double-tracking the line, however, offers enormous potential, jumping the capacity from an estimated 30 trains per day to 75. In other words, CSX could double current traffic–a situation no one sees as being around the corner in New England–and there would still be 15 slots per day for passenger traffic. More realistically, a fully double-tracked B&A could easily accommodate 40 freights, the 8 proposed Inland Regional trips, 6-8 trips to Albany, and the Lake Shore Limited–a total of under 60 trains per day west of Worcester.  Of course, fully double-tracking the line requires the states of Massachusetts and New York to cooperate, and the Cuomo administration has shown little interest in efficient passenger rail.

Pessimistic SPG-NHV times

The table of travel times above envisions a trip time of 1:40 from Springfield to New Haven given all local stops. This seems somewhat pessimistic to me, as the current shuttles and Vermonter are scheduled for 1:20 to 1:30 over the same route; perhaps the longer time takes into account that a few stops will be added under the NHHS scheme, but those should be counterbalanced by improved track speeds; it’s not a big deal, but I’m somewhat confused.

Who’s going to operate it?

Most commentary I’ve seen has assumed that any extension of rail service from Boston to Springfield would be operated by the MBTA. Running the trains through to New Haven would seem to preclude that possibility. Amtrak would seem the most logical choice, but the northeast state haven’t been thrilled with it of late; Connecticut, for example has opened the NHHS service to a bid competition. The NNEIRI network is an extremely complex system, involving at least three states, plus the province of Quebec and federal authorities regulating border crossings, the private railroads owning the tracks, and various other stakeholders. So perhaps now is the time to revive my call for a unified Northeastern passenger rail authority.



Are We Finally Getting Somewhere with Amtrak’s Boarding Procedures?

Today, the  Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the US House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan bill called the Passenger Rail Reform and Reinvestment Act of 2014 (full text). Though unlikely to pass this year, this seems at very first glance (full disclosure, I haven’t read the whole thing) to be a creative, intriguing approach to better (or at least different) investment in Amtrak, and the Northeast Corridor especially.

The major thing that caught my eye, though, is a section on, of all things, Amtrak boarding procedures. Why would the House involve itself in anything so very technical and minor? Other than the eternal explanation that Congress just loves screwing with people, the answer probably is related to the way that Amtrak’s nutty, inefficient airline-style boarding procedures (briefly: rather than having passengers wait on the platform like EVERYHWERE ELSE, Amtrak makes them queue at “gates” like in an airport) have become something of a media sensation.

This prominence for a relatively obscure topic is largely due to the efforts of Matt Yglesias, first at Slate and now at Vox. Over the last several years, Yglesias has repeatedly called out Amtrak’s inefficient boarding procedures at major stations, and offered sneaky workarounds for those who feel like making an end run around security theater; others have taken up the torch as well. Amtrak, for its part, has shown little inclination to budge.

As usual in politics, ignoring a burgeoning media firestorm for years just gets you in deeper trouble in the end. The House has apparently taken notice of Amtrak’s intransigence, and the new bill contains a section (covering parts of pages 48 and 49 in the PDF linked to above) that reads thus (edited for clarity and formatting):


10 (a) REPORT.—Not later than 6 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Amtrak Office of Inspector General shall transmit to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate a report that (1) evaluates Amtrak’s boarding procedures at its 10 stations through which the most people pass;  (2) compares Amtrak’s boarding procedures to– (A) commuter railroad boarding procedures at stations shared with Amtrak; ( B) international intercity passenger rail boarding procedures; and (C) fixed guideway transit boarding procedures; and  (3) makes recommendations, as appropriate, to improve Amtrak’s boarding procedures, including recommendations regarding the queuing of passengers and free-flow of all station-users.

(b) CONSIDERATION OF RECOMMENDATIONS.—Not later than 6 months after the release of the report required under subsection (a), the Amtrak Board of Directors shall consider each recommendation provided under subsection (a)(3) for implementation across the Amtrak system.

The bill’s demands might as well have been ripped from an Yglesias piece; indeed, the text hits almost all of the points of comparison that Yglesias and others have brought up with regards to Amtrak’s procedures. Perhaps some bright young staffer has been following the controversy; in any case, maybe the media pressure is getting somewhere after all. This particular bill may be unlikely to pass, but now we know the idea of boarding procedure reform is percolating in the House, and (regardless of the other qualities of this bill), maybe we’ll eventually see some progress on the issue.

Searching for a Good Albany-Area Amtrak Station Site

Albany has a train station problem.

Surprising, maybe, considering the beautiful and (by train station standards) more or less brand new (opened 2002) Albany-Rensselaer station, which typically ranks 9th or 10th out of all Amtrak stations in annual ridership. But true nonetheless.

A few days ago I got into a brief Twitter discussion with the illustrious Cap’n Transit about the state of the Albany train station:

This is, of course, an entirely theoretical discussion. Amtrak and CDTA, which owns the station, are heavily invested in the current Albany-Rensselaer station, and moving it at this point would be a waste of relatively recently spent infrastructure dollars.  In Albany, of course, politics plays into everything; the Rensselaer station is, to a large extent, one of the many fruits of that notorious porkmaster, former State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. It is, however, exceptionally difficult to get to by any mode other than driving, despite being only a mile and a half from downtown Albany (if you don’t believe me, just read the comments on this Times-Union blog post). CDTA buses arrive only four times an hour at most, and rather than coming into the station as originally planned they stop on the street outside, in a completely non-intuitive location. Walking what should be a decent distance to downtown Albany or the Empire State Plaza requires crossing the Hudson on the concrete hellscape of the Dunn Memorial Bridge, itself a monument to highway plans that would have done irreparable damage to Albany had they gone through fully.

So the location of Albany’s train station, not to put too fine of a point on it, sucks. The question of moving it may be entirely theoretical at this point, but it’s an interesting question nonetheless. If I were given significant power to physically reshape the Capital Region (like, say, Nelson Rockefeller in the ’60s), where would I put the crown jewel of the region’s non-automobile transportation system?

Albany, of course, once had the downtown station that the Cap’n and I both wish could still exist. The building, in fact, still exists, and it is quite stately:

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Abandoned as a railroad building in 1968, Union Station has seen use as a bank headquarters, and after sitting empty for a while is now being converted into something called “the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering’s Smart Cities Technology Innovation Center, or SCiTI.” Once upon a time, New York Central trains (Delaware & Hudson was the other major tenant) reached Union Station from Rensselaer via the Maiden Lane Bridge, like so:

Today (well, as of 1968), the Maiden Lane Bridge is gone, and the area behind the Union Station building, which once held coach yards and two levels of platforms, looks like this:

The approach to the old Union Station, like the rest of the Albany waterfront, has been entirely amputated by I-787, with the only remaining rails, the old D&H Colonie Main, relocated to the middle of the freeway, completely inaccessible from the street. The old platform canopy now shades (a little) a parking garage.

The issue with a downtown station, then, is that not only is the old site unavailable, but so are any other potential sites along the waterfront–that is, any site close to downtown Albany.  So, where CAN one put a station in Albany proper?

One possibility is near the  much dreamed-upon Central Warehouse (proposals for reuse have included an aquarium. Yes, an aquarium), just west of the Livingston Avenue Bridge across the Hudson, on the northern fringes of Albany. The station could occupy the site currently used by the burnt-out hulk, or the short straightaway a little to the west between Broadway and Pearl. The site looks like this:

This wouldn’t move the station very far, of course, but it would get it across the Hudson and into an area with better transit service. The area around the Central Warehouse is seeing a limited revival as part of a brewery neighborhood, but is clearly in need of significant revitalization that a train station could bring. That being said, it’s still pretty far from downtown (about 7/1oths of a mile), and there are a few engineering challenges: platforms couldn’t be very long because of the curves, and it’s not at all clear that the necessary four tracks could be squeezed into the existing right-of-way.

The truth is, though, if we’re looking for a station location that will attract the most ridership, downtown Albany may not offer the most potential in any case. The 2012 ACS numbers show only around 1,100 people living in the census tract that covers Downtown, and while the city has been doing a good job of trying to attract high-end residential conversions to the area, that process had been going very slowly. When I get off my bus coming home from school in the evenings (in Center Square, a little up the hill), I’m always surprised to see that I’m one of the last 2 or 3 people on the bus; non-commute demand to downtown is just exceptionally weak. The truth is that most Albany transportation demand resides uptown, in the dense neighborhoods along Central Avenue, and the more suburbanized areas near the uptown SUNY campus.

Is there, then, a fringe station location that might have something to offer? The idea of a station in suburban Albany is not new; one existed in the large suburb of Colonie for a number of years in the ’60s and ’70s (I can’t seem to find a source for an exact opening date), closing in 1979.  Technically called Schenectady-Colonie, since due to cost-cutting measures it replaced the downtown Schenectady station, this little stop sat about halfway down the passenger main between Albany and Schenectady, very much in the middle of suburban nothingness:

Needless to say, the Schenectady-Colonie station was a ridership disaster from the beginning. (click on the linked article–come for the vintage-1979 Turboliner picture, stay for the speed and trip-time promises that are remarkably similar to today’s!) After hemorrhaging riders for years, the Schenectady-Colonie station closed for good when enough government money became available to build the existent Schenectady station, which sits on the remains of the one that was torn down under Penn Central, and is now slated for replacement itself. In any case, the Schenectady-Colonie station building still exists; the building in this picture is clearly the same one visible at center if you zoom in the map above far enough.  Of course, no station will ever be built there again; it has zero access to public transit, is in the middle of nowhere, and sits smack dab in the center of a long tangent that allows trains to exercise their full 110-mph speed.

So is there a single location for an Albany-area station that I think might be better than the current one? Given the paucity of options, I’m not sure that anything short of a total rebuilding of the Albany waterfront that brings trains back and eliminates I-787 (something I’m for, by the way) can really do the job to full satisfaction. There is one site, though, that might, to some extent, bring benefits greater than the current setup. If it were up to me, I would put Albany’s intercity train station in the empty triangle of land described by Central Avenue, the tracks, and the borders of the Railroad Avenue industrial district, just across the city boundary in Colonie:

This site has room for four tracks, is adjacent to Central Avenue, the area’s main drag, with its BRT-lite BusPlus service (as well as local service), and offers potential for development. It’s also not far from the UAlbany campus, which is a major ridership generator. It’s also just past the top of the slow, curvy climb out of the Hudson Valley, and thus stopping there won’t cost trains as much time as slowing in the middle of the sprint from or to Schenectady. The site is also a brownfield, formerly home to a National Lead plant that was shut down by the state courts in 1984 for polluting; amazingly enough given its proximity to homes, the plant was found to have been using depleted uranium and other radioactive materials in its work, and so the site has for the last 30 years been under the stewardship of first the federal Department of Energy and then the Army Corps of Engineers. With its rather notorious history, the prospect of redeveloping the National Lead site as housing is probably unappealing. But the site is transit-accessible, central, and offers the prospect of being the lever that can bring the Central Ave. corridor in Colonie into a more urban future. If magically the prospect of moving the Albany train station becomes realistic, this location has my vote.


Freight Railroad Intransigence and Empire Corridor Options

The Albany Times-Union reported on Sunday that CSX, freight railroad owner of the old New York Central Water Level Route, had officially filed with the state Department of Transportation its opposition to the state’s proposed improvements to the Empire Corridor West passenger service.  This isn’t particularly surprising; CSX has long opposed the project and has for quite a while developed a corporate reputation for not being a fan of passenger rail sharing any of its infrastructure. That being said, the claims that CSX seems to have made in its letter of comment on the Empire Corridor EIS say a good bit about its corporate strategy, and potentially about the future of passenger rail in New York.

The Times-Union acquired a copy of CSX’ letter, but did not provide direct quotes in its article. Instead, it summarized the railroad’s objections thusly (caveat: not a full list):

CSX said additional passenger trains would only add to the congestion, causing delays and hindering access to freight customers on sidings along the main rail line.

Without adequate separation between the freight tracks and a newly constructed passenger track, high-speed trains also would pose increased danger to CSX track crews, it said.

CSX criticizes the methods used to compile the draft statement, pointing out that projected costs don’t include payments for use of CSX property, which it says is worth “billions.”

CSX also said the statement doesn’t consider other, more cost-effective, ways to improve passenger mobility from upstate cities such as Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo that are along the route, including improved bus service and air service.

And it says the study should have considered the Albany-New York City and Albany-Niagara Falls segments as two different corridors, allowing policy makers to proceed with improvements on the first and choosing the “no-build” alternative for the second.

These objections are, not to use too fine a word, bullshit. And I think CSX knows that, and the state DOT knows that, and anyone following the situation carefully should know it too. I’ll provide a brief fisking here:

–The recently (ok, a few months ago) released DEIS explicitly only covers the portion of the line west of Albany; that’s the whole point of calling it the Empire Corridor West study.

–The entire project is predicated on the separation of passenger trains from freight on an entirely new track, thus getting them out of each others’ hair.

–Railfan forums (yes, they can be a good source of information; career railroaders know a lot), in particular this one, have long studied CSX’ claim that only three tracks will fit where four used to be and two exist today. CSX’ logic is that the distance between track centers now needs to be 30 feet, where 15 sufficed historically. The consensus is that CSX’ insistence on 30′ track centers is completely unnecessary.

–The DEIS makes very clear (page 1-6, for those who are interested) that the cost numbers it calculates do not include buying the right-of-way from CSX and otherwise compensating the railroad for inconvenience; that will occur at Tier 2 of the EIS process.

–The EIS itself makes very clear, and to its credit the Times Union includes in its article, that NYC-Upstate, much less intra-Upstate bus and especially air services are in no way competitive with better train service. Buses don’t get people out of cars, and air service is unprofitable in those corridors and prohibitively expensive for most travelers in any case.

–CSX’ claim about the fragility of capacity of the Mohawk Subdivision, its designation for the line across Upstate New York, is very, very suspect. A 2012 CSX network planning document makes clear that the Mohawk Sub is currently under-capacity (in contrast to, among other routes, the freight-only, single-track West Shore Line):

capacity capture

Meanwhile, the 2009 NYS rail plan also shows the Mohawk Sub below capacity, and envisions it only beginning to approach capacity in 2035, despite predicted increases in traffic. CSX claims that increased traffic from the Panama Canal widening is likely to move across the Mohawk; most observers think that container traffic to the Midwest will continue to move via West Coast ports, with increased traffic to East Coast ports being confined to the coastal area. Certainly, Amtrak trains are disruptive to CSX’ 50-60 freights a day on the Mohawk; but they are clearly not having any significant impact on the line’s reliability. Indeed, despite federal rules mandating that Amtrak trains be given priority, the 47% (!!!!) on-time performance of Empire Corridor trains west of Albany indicates that they’re not exactly the top priority of Mohawk Sub dispatchers.

So if CSX’ objections to New York’s plan are mostly bull, and can be dealt with easily if they’re not, what’s going on? Why bother to object to a project that is potentially lucrative (if the state pays the billions that CSX claims half the ROW is worth) and would significantly improve the railroad’s image at a time when well-publicized gas train explosions are proving to be a massive PR problem for the industry?

There are, in my opinion, at least two separate dynamics in the CSX-NYS impasse, both of them essentially political in nature. First is CSX’ strategy for dealing with its busy, but expensive and competitive (between freight and passenger traffic) legacy lines in the Northeast. For years, CSX has gotten cash from the Massachusetts state government for improvements to its ex-Boston & Albany line over the Berkshires, while at the same time intentionally not agreeing to capacity improvements that would have allowed the MBTA to run more commuter trains between Boston and Worcester; when business east of Worcester proved less profitable than trucking most goods into Boston from an intermodal terminal in Worcester,  CSX sold the Boston-Worcester segment of the line to the Commonwealth. Meanwhile in New York, CSX and the state long maintained a cost-sharing arrangement for the upper portion of the Hudson Line, the Empire Service’s southern leg; as soon as the (always limited) freight demand on that line dipped, and the state proved willing to pony up, CSX leased the line to Amtrak. The strategy is clear, and quite smart: CSX milk public funds made available to its infrastructure for all they are worth, while intentionally not making capacity improvements that would allow more robust passenger service; as soon as the states tire of the situation and prove willing to pay up, the railroad is suddenly willing to sell.

The second dynamic has to do with the Andrew Cuomo administration’s lukewarm relationship with transit. As Alon Levy has written, it’s pretty clear that the Cuomo administration sandbagged proposals for a “true” Empire Corridor high-speed rail system by arguing that government can’t build infrastructure projects during a recession and publicizing inflated cost numbers.  The numbers the DEIS includes for the Empire West improvements are likely inflated too ($6 billion for a few hundred miles of third track on an existing ROW?), and the administration’s indifferent attitude towards the project–and any other kind of transit, really–has come across pretty clearly.

Cuomo values his image as a business-friendly, tax-cutting centrist governor, clearly believing that it separates him from other Democrats in the national field (we can, of course, argue about whether this is true, or whether it’s working for him in his own state). As Alon wrote in the first post linked to above, “Although Andrew Cuomo likes flashy public works projects, of which HSR is one, he is consistently pro-road and anti-rail.” This isn’t, I think, a particularly ideological stand (though it might have something to do with Cuomo’s well-know affection for vintage cars); rather, it’s a product of Cuomo’s desire to appeal electorally to white, wealthy suburban voters (=drivers) in a state where Democrats have long, and for good reason, been identified with New York and other cities. Nowhere has that come across more clearly than in his administration’s transportation and infrastructure priorities. Though the transit-advocate furor over the administration’s raid of the MTA budget for Verrazano Narrows Bridge toll relief was probably overstated given the relatively small amount of money involved, the raid was a clear indicator of an administration that cares more about attracting swing Staten Island votes than rewarding its loyal soldiers in the other boroughs, who are going to vote for the Democrat anyhow (especially after the combustion of the potential Working Families Party challenge to Cuomo). Similarly, Cuomo’s hugely expensive, unnecessary, and controversial (seriously? Clean water money for a car bridge?) new Tappan Zee bridge is clearly a sop to suburban populations in Rockland and Westchester counties.

So…I’ve been rambling. What do CSX’ intelligent strategy for maximizing profit from its legacy Northeastern holdings and Andrew Cuomo’s antipathy to transit have to do with each other, and with Empire Corridor West? I believe that CSX corporate management is watching the Cuomo administration very carefully, and is very much aware of its reluctance to invest serious money in transit. So CSX is going to, quite logically, play a waiting game. Their interest is in getting a massive payoff from New York State for the right to reclaim half of the Water Level Route ROW for passenger rail. With the Cuomo administration unlikely to want to invest the kind of money such a deal would take, their will almost certainly be no political ramifications in the short term for CSX’ intransigence. CSX is gambling that, in the medium run, if the next gubernatorial administration finds the Empire Corridor West situation unacceptable (and I certainly don’t see passenger OTP improving under current conditions), it will be willing to pay the company a massive amount of money.

If there’s one good for passenger rail that could come out of CSX’ reluctance to cooperate with the Empire Corridor West project, it’s that it might allow–or even force–future administrations to revisit the idea of true HSR in the Empire Corridor. Improved regional service in the corridor is better than nothing, but Upstate New York desperately needs an economic game changer, and nothing can match HSR for that potential. If CSX is truly unwilling to deal–or if, as I suspect, the price of a deal is just going to be incredibly high–studying HSR (at realistic prices, not the Cuomo administration’s inflated ones) may again become an attractive option.

In the meantime, it’s not like New York State has no leverage in the situation. CSX has long essentially held a monopoly on rail freight traffic into New England, a status enabled in recent years by Massachusetts’ investment in allowing modern freight car clearances and weights on the Berkshire Line. In recent years, though, the other titan of Eastern railroading, Norfolk Southern, has begun to challenge CSX’ chokehold on the region. Using traffic rights over the Delaware & Hudson’s longtime bridge route from Binghamton to the Capital Region, and an alliance with New England regional Pan Am east of there, NS has gradually built up a modern infrastructure for its traffic in the market. NS/Pan Am Southern is not yet capable of challenging CSX; in particular, the eastern part of the allied route, east of Mechanicville, would require significant investment to bring up to modern double-stack clearance/315,000 lb freight car weight standards. Norfolk Southern is beginning to pour in some of the necessary on its own, but if the state threatened to ally with Massachusetts to fully prepare the NS/Pan Am route for competition with the Berkshire Line, one imagines that CSX might find it shares more interests with the state than it thought. Just don’t count on any of those things happening.